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Battling for independence: Small states stake their claim

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The Gulf crisis that pits a United Arab Emirates-Saudi-led alliance against Qatar has emerged about more than a regional spat. It is part of a global battle whose outcome will determine the ability of small states to chart their own course in the shadow of a regional behemoth whether that is Saudi Arabia in the Middle East or China in Asia.

It also has parallels with efforts by peoples like the Catalans in Spain, the Kurds in Iraq or Ambazonians in Cameroon to secede and form independent small states of their own that is likely to mushroom with Kurds in Syria and others likely to put forward similar demands.

The battle for the ability to make independent choices is easier for existing small states like Qatar, the UAE and Singapore that are fending off varying degrees of political and economic pressure from Big Brothers. Groups like the Catalans and the Iraqi Kurds grapple with a more fundamental obstacle: resistance by nation states like Spain and Iraq to cede economically valuable territory and an international community whose Pavlov reflex is to oppose secession.

Political scientists Alberto Alesino and Enrico Spolaore argued in a book published more than a decade ago, The Size of Nations, that both large and small states have to make cost/benefit trade-offs that determine their ability to provide populations with public goods and services and carve out their place in an international order. The integrity of larger states like Iraq and Spain whose size means that their populations are more heterogeneous is called into question by groups who feel that the state does not serve their interests and needs. Small states are either more homogenous or like Singapore find it easier to cater to different segments of a heterogeneous population but need to manoeuvre more nimbly internationally to ensure their independence.

The struggle of smaller states to escape the yoke of a regional behemoth and various groups to carve out small states of their own may have gained pace because of a realization that the benefits of being big have decreased and an expectation articulated by political scientists Sverrir Steinsson and Baldur Thorallsson that big states will grow increasingly smaller. “Thankfully for small states, it has never been as easy being small as it is in the current international system with its unprecedented degree of peace, economic openness and institutionalization,” Steinsson and Thorallsson said in a recent study entitled The Small-State Survival Guide to Foreign Policy Success.

The Gulf crisis fits the mould of smaller states seeking to carve out their place in the regional and international order, but also breaks it. At stake in the Gulf is more than just the ability of small states to chart their own course. No doubt, that is one aspect of Qatar’s refusal to bow to demands by the UAE-Saudi-led alliance that it radically alter its foreign and security policies that embraces political change for others and align them with those of others in the region.

Yet, the root of the dispute goes beyond that. The Gulf crisis is a clash of diametrically opposed strategies for the survival of autocratic rule fought in ways that threaten independence of choice of others as well as regional stability. It is a battle between two small states with massive war chests garnered from energy exports that have megalomaniac ambitions to shape a swath of land that stretches from North and East Africa into Asia in their own mould. To achieve their goals the UAE and Qatar act not as small states but as big powers, using the kind of tools big powers use: financial muscle, support of opposition forces to stimulate or engineer regime change, foreign military bases, military coups, covert wars, and cyberwar. Buried in their megalomania is a naïve belief that the consequences of their actions will not come to haunt them.

As a result, the parameters of debate sparked by the Gulf crisis about the place of small states in the international order is different when it comes to the ambitions of Qatar and the UAE as opposed to countries like Singapore who rely more on soft power, opt to fly more under the radar, and stick more to strategies generally associated with small state efforts to ensure their independence of choice.

What Singapore, Qatar and the UAE have in common however, is that their quest to jealously guard their ability to chart their own course is driven by fear. Singapore’s fear, unlike that of Qatar and the UAE that face very different demographic challenges involving citizenries that account for only a small percentage of the population, is grounded in race riots surrounding its birth, the perception of living in a volatile neighbourhood, and concern resulting from the fallout of convoluted transitions that have wracked the Middle East and North Africa and fuelled religiously-inspired militancy.

While all three states are in some ways corporations, Singapore in contrast to Qatar and the UAE, has institutionalized its system of government to a far greater degree than the Gulf states in terms of institutions, the rule of law, and checks and balances irrespective of its warts. Qatar has so far ignored the opportunity offered it by the wave of unprecedented nationalism unleashed by the Gulf crisis as Qataris rallied around the ruling Al Thani family that accounts for 20 percent of the citizenry in a nation of 300,000 nationals. As a result, debate in Singapore focuses on survival as an independent state rather than survival of a ruling family. In Singapore, the debate about what it can and should do to stand up for its interests is public; in Qatar and the UAE far more repressive restrictions on freedom of expression stymie debate or drive it into clandestinity.

Similarly, Qatar and the UAE project themselves as regional and global hubs that are building cutting-edge, 21st century knowledge societies on top of tribally-based autocracies in which education, in contrast to Singapore, is designed to ensure that citizens have marketable skills and can interact globally rather than develop the skills of critical thinking that could result in criticism of their regimes. While there is no public debate in either Gulf state about governance, Singapore’s transition away from the Lee family’s dominance and to a post-Lee generation is one that is cushioned by discussion and expression of aspirations.

Both Qatar and the UAE have glimmering and bold skylines that rival that of Singapore. But beyond the trappings of modernity, neither are states that empower their citizens. The limitations of modernity are evident. Criticism after Qatar won the 2022 World Cup hosting rights of its controversial labour regime that governs the lives of migrant workers, a majority of the country’s population, did not resonate among Qataris, largely because of the country’s demographic deficit. In fact, Qataris protested in 2009, when some households hired Saudis as maids, yet never raised their voice about the widespread abuse of Asian maids. Saudi unlike Asian maids were too close to home. If Saudis could be reduced to the status of a maid, so could one day Qataris pampered by a cradle-to-grave welfare state.

Qatar and the UAE share building blocks of soft power creation and the manufacturing of national identity some of which are also employed by Singapore. They include foreign military bases; world class airlines that service global hubs; museums that both attract tourism and manufacture a national heritage; high profile investments in blue chips, real estate and the arts, sports and the ambition of becoming centres of excellence in multiple fields.

While political Islam plays a less important role in Singapore’s management of its heterogeneity, Qatar and the UAE have adopted radically different approaches even though both have developed societies in which religious scholars have relatively little say and Islamic mores and norms are relatively liberally interpreted. This, however, is where the communalities in their survival strategies stop. Whereas Qatar embraced support of political Islam, the UAE has opted to suppress it. Nonetheless, both states project their approach as part of their effort to garner soft power.

As a result, the UAE has backed regime change in a number of countries, including Egypt and reportedly Turkey; supported anti-Islamist, anti- government rebels in Libya; joined Saudi Arabia’s ill-fated military intervention in Yemen; and in the latest episode of its campaign, driven imposition of a diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

In contrast to the UAE, Qatar has sought to position itself as the regional go-to go-between and mediator by maintaining relations not only with states but also a scala of Islamist, militant and rebel groups across the Middle East and northern Africa. It moreover embraced the 2011 popular Arab revolts and supported Islamist forces, with the Muslim Brotherhood in the lead, that emerged as the most organized political force from the uprisings. Qatar’s support for the Brotherhood amounted to aligning itself with forces that were challenging Gulf regimes and that the UAE alongside Saudi Arabia was seeking to suppress. Qatar did so in the naive belief that it could encourage transition everywhere else without the waves of change washing up on its own shores.

What puts the Gulf crisis in a bracket of its own in the discussion about the place of small states in the international pecking order is the fact underlying the crisis are issues that go far beyond the debate. One root cause of the crisis is Qatar and the UAE’s radically different definitions of terrorism that is enabled by the international community’s inability to agree on what does and does not constitute terrorism and anchor that agreement in international law. The failure to do so fuels differences in perceptions of national security threats, undermines governments’ ability to effectively combat political violence, and allows them to shy away from advancing greater accountability and transparency, and ensuring protection of basic human rights.

As a result, the Gulf crisis has a pot blaming the kettle quality. It pits autocracies against one another. None of the protagonists advocates a more liberal system of government for its own people. Their differences are rooted in their histories of independence and concepts of national security that are defined by geography and differing threat perceptions.

Qatar, the UAE and Singapore are all unique in their own ways. In many ways, they don’t fit the mould of the world’s average small state. Yet, they all offer lessons for other small states or territories aspiring to join the international community as independent countries. Singapore, unlike Qatar and the UAE has established itself as a model of good governance and of a small state that turned the liability of having no resources but its human capital into an asset. The UAE has so far succeeded in positioning itself as the small state most capable of punching above its weight. Qatar has become the example of a small state capable of resisting heavy external pressure. Ultimately, however, Singapore may prove to have a more sustainable survival strategy by grounding it in institutions, performance and human capital rather than the wielding of financial muscle in an effort to shape the world around it in its own mould.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Middle East

Erdogan’s Calamitous Authoritarianism

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Turkey’s President Erdogan is becoming ever more dangerous as he continues to ravage his own country and destabilize scores of states in the Middle East, the Balkans, and North Africa, while cozying up to the West’s foremost advisories. Sadly, there seems to be no appetite for most EU member states to challenge Erdogan and put him on notice that he can no longer pursue his authoritarianism at home and his adventurous meddling abroad with impunity.

To understand the severity of Erdogan’s actions and ambitions and their dire implications, it suffices to quote Ahmet Davutoglu, formerly one of Erdogan’s closest associates who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and subsequently Prime Minister. Following his forced resignation in May 2016 he stated “I will sustain my faithful relationship with our president until my last breath. No one has ever heard — and will ever hear — a single word against our president come from my mouth.”

Yet on October 12, Davutoglu declared “Erdogan left his friends who struggled and fought with him in exchange for the symbols of ancient Turkey, and he is trying to hold us back now…. You yourself [Erdogan] are the calamity. The biggest calamity that befell this people is the regime that turned the country into a disastrous family business.”

The stunning departure of Davutoglu from his earlier statement shows how desperate conditions have become, and echoed how far and how dangerously Erdogan has gone. Erdogan has inflicted a great calamity on his own people, and his blind ambition outside Turkey is destabilizing many countries while dangerously undermining Turkey’s and its Western allies’ national security and strategic interests.

A brief synopsis of Erdogan’s criminal domestic practices and his foreign misadventures tell the whole story.

Domestically, he incarcerated tens of thousands of innocent citizens on bogus charges, including hundreds of journalists. Meanwhile he is pressuring the courts to send people to prison for insulting him, as no one can even express their thoughts about this ruthlessness. Internationally, Erdogan ordered Turkish intelligence operatives to kill or smuggle back to the country Turkish citizens affiliated with the Gülen movement.

He regularly cracks down on Turkey’s Kurdish minority, preventing them from living a normal life in accordance with their culture, language, and traditions, even though they have been and continue to be loyal Turkish citizens. There is no solution to the conflict except political, as former Foreign Minister Ali Babacan adamantly stated on October 20: “… a solution [to the Kurdish issue] will be political and we will defend democracy persistently.”

Erdogan refuses to accept the law of the sea convention that gives countries, including Cyprus, the right to an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for energy exploration, while threatening the use of force against Greece, another NATO member no less. He openly sent a research ship to the region for oil and gas deposits, which EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called “extremely worrying.”

He invaded Syria with Trump’s blessing to prevent the Syrian Kurds from establishing autonomous rule, under the pretext of fighting the PKK and the YPG (the Syrian Kurdish militia that fought side-by-side the US, and whom Erdogan falsely accuses of being a terrorist group).

He is sending weapons to the Sunni in northern Lebanon while setting up a branch of the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) in the country—a practice Erdogan has used often to gain a broader foothold in countries where it has an interest.

While the Turkish economy is in tatters, he is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the Balkans, flooding countries with Turkish imams to spread his Islamic gospel and to ensure their place in his neo-Ottoman orbit. Criticizing Erdogan’s economic leadership, Babacan put it succinctly when he said this month that “It is not possible in Turkey for the economic or financial system to continue, or political legitimacy hold up.”

Erdogan is corrupt to the bone. He conveniently appointed his son-in-law as Finance Minister, which allows him to hoard tens of millions of dollars, as Davutoglu slyly pointed out: “The only accusation against me…is the transfer of land to an educational institution over which I have no personal rights and which I cannot leave to my daughter, my son, my son-in-law or my daughter-in-law.”

Erdogan is backing Azerbaijan in its dispute with Armenia (backed by Iran) over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is inhabited by ethnic Armenians and has been the subject of dispute for over 30 years.

He is exploiting Libya’s civil strife by providing the Government of National Accord (GNA) with drones and military equipment to help Tripoli gain the upper hand in its battle against Khalifa Haftar’s forces. Former Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said in February 2020 that “The unclear Turkish foreign policy by Erdogan may put Turkey in grave danger due to this expansion towards Libya.”

He is meddling in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an effort to prevent them from settling their dispute unless Israel meets Palestinian demands. He granted several Hamas officials Turkish citizenship to spite Israel, even though Hamas openly calls for Israel’s destruction.

He betrayed NATO by buying the Russian-made S-400 air defense system, which seriously compromises the alliance’s technology and intelligence.

He is destabilizing many countries, including Somalia, Qatar, Libya, and Syria, by dispatching military forces and hardware while violating the air space of other countries like Iraq, Cyprus, and Greece. Yakis said Turkey is engaging in a “highly daring bet where the risks of failure are enormous.”

Erdogan supports extremist Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and an assortment of jihadists, including ISIS, knowing full well that these groups are sworn enemies of the West—yet he uses them as a tool to promote his wicked Islamic agenda.

He regularly blackmails EU members, threatening to flood Europe with Syria refugees unless they support his foreign escapades such as his invasion of Syria, and provide him with billions in financial aid to cope with the Syrian refugees.

The question is how much more evidence does the EU need to act? A close look at Erdogan’s conduct clearly illuminates his ultimate ambition to restore much of the Ottoman Empire’s influence over the countries that were once under its control.

Erdogan is dangerous. He has cited Hitler as an example of an effective executive presidential system, and may seek to acquire nuclear weapons. It’s time for the EU to wake up and take Erdogan’s long-term agenda seriously, and take severe punitive measures to arrest his potentially calamitous behavior. Sadly, the EU has convinced itself that from a geostrategic perspective Turkey is critically important, which Erdogan is masterfully exploiting.

The EU must be prepared take a stand against Erdogan, with or without the US. Let’s hope, though, that Joe Biden will be the next president and together with the EU warn Erdogan that his days of authoritarianism and foreign adventurism are over.

The views expressed are those of the author.

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Middle East

Syrian Refugees Have Become A Tool Of Duplicitous Politics

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Syrian refugees in Rukban camp

Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria the issue of Syrian refugees and internally displace has been the subject of countless articles and reports with international humanitarian organizations and countries involved in the Syrian conflict shifting responsibility for the plight of migrants.

The most notorious example of human suffering put against political games is the Rukban refugee camp located in eastern Syria inside the 55-km zone around Al-Tanf base controlled by the U.S. and its proxies.

According to official information, more than 50,000 people, mostly women and children, currently live in the camp. This is a huge number comparable to the population of a small town. The Syrian government, aware of the plight of people in Rukban, has repeatedly urged Washington to open a humanitarian corridor so that everyone can safely return home. However, all such proposals were ignored by the American side. U.S. also refuse to provide the camp with first aid items. Neighbouring Jordan is inactive, too, despite Rukban being the largest of dozens other temporary detention centres in Syria, where people eke out a meager existence.

At the same time, the problem is not only refugee camps. Syria has been at war for a decade. The country’s economy has suffered greatly over this period, and many cities have been practically grazed to the ground. Moreover, the global coronavirus epidemic didn’t spare Syria and drained the already weakened economy even more. However, Damascus’ attempts of post-war reconstruction and economic recovery were undermined by multiple packages of severe sanctions imposed by the U.S. At the same time, U.S.-based human rights monitors and humanitarian organizations continue to weep over the Syrian citizens’ misery.

The situation is the same for those refugees who stay in camps abroad, especially in countries bordering on Syria, particularly Jordan and Turkey. Ankara has been using Syrian citizens as a leverage against the European states in pursuit of political benefits for a long time. No one pays attention to the lives of people who are used as a change coin in big politics. This is equally true for Rukban where refugees are held in inhuman conditions and not allowed to return to their homeland. In those rare exceptions that they are able to leave, refugees have to pay large sums of money that most of those living in camp are not able to come by.

It’s hard to predict how long the Syrian conflict will go on and when – or if – the American military will leave the Al-Tanf base. One thing can be said for sure: the kind of criminal inaction and disregard for humanitarian catastrophe witnessed in refugee camps is a humiliating failure of modern diplomacy and an unforgivable mistake for the international community. People shouldn’t be a tool in the games of politicians.

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Middle East

Is Syria Ready For Second Wave Of COVID-19?

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©UNICEF/Delil Souleiman

Despite a relative calm that has been holding on the front lines of the Syrian conflict since the beginning of the year, Syria had to face other equally – if not more – serious challenges. The spread of COVID-19 virus in the wake of a general economic collapse and a health care system battered by nine years of war threatened Syria with a death toll as a high as that of resumed military confrontation. However, the actual scale of the infection rate turned out to be less than it was expected considering the circumstances.

Although Syria did not have much in resources to mobilize, unlike some other countries that were slow to enforce restrictions or ignored them altogether, the Syrian authorities did not waste time to introduce basic measures that, as it became obvious in hindsight, proved to be the most effective. A quarantine was instituted in the areas controlled by the government, all transportation between the provinces was suspended, schools and universities were temporarily closed and face masks were made obligatory in public spaces.

As a result, official data puts the number of people infected with COVID-19 in the government areas at modest 4,457 while 192 people died of the infection. In turn, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria announced that 1,998 people contracted the virus. The data on the infection rate in the opposition-controlled areas in Idlib and Aleppo is incomplete, but the latest number is 1,072. Compared to the neighboring Turkey with  9,000 of deaths of COVID-19, Syria seems to be doing relatively well.

Tackling the virus put the already embattled health care system under enormous strain. Syrian doctors are dealing with an acute shortage of medicines and equipment, and even hospital beds are in short supply. Over 60 medical workers who treated COVID-19 patients died.

The situation is worsened even further by the economic hardships, not least due to the sanctions imposed on Syria by the U.S. and the European states. Syrian hospitals are unable to procure modern equipment necessary for adequate treatment of COVID-19, most importantly test kits and ventilators.

The economic collapse exposed and aggravated many vulnerabilities that could have been easily treated under more favorable circumstances. A grim, yet fitting example: long queues in front of bakeries selling bread at subsidised prices, that put people under the risk of catching the virus. Many Syrians are simply unable to avoid risking their health in these queues, as an average income is no longer enough to provide for a family.

Moreover, despite a nation-wide information campaign conducted with the goal of spreading awareness about means of protections against COVID-19 like social distancing and mask-wearing, for many Syrians the disease is still stigmatized, and those who contracted it are often too ashamed to go to a hospital or even confess to their friends. As consequence, a substantial number of cases goes unreported.

With the second wave of COVID-19 in sight, it is of utmost importance that the work of health care professionals is supported, not subverted by the citizens. Otherwise Syria – and the world – may pay too high a price.

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